Why are we advised to not talk with strangers from early childhood? As someone who truly enjoys meeting new people, being open to conversations and listening to people’s stories, I am trying to understand when and why we started to become alienated from each other. Is it possible to recreate a culture in which we feel safe and comfortable enough to interact with strangers?
After all, aren’t we all strangers until we get to know each other?
As a child, I remember how I would simply show up and ask, “Can we be friends?” to the children I met in the playground. This social attitude of mine changed, as I became more insecure about directly approaching people because I did not want to be in an awkward situation where I would be misunderstood or not accepted. And most significantly, I was trying to avoid the possibility of being hurt.
In the last few years, however, I have had the chance to rediscover how much I enjoy approaching people with an open heart and a kind smile, initiating conversations and getting to know them. Now I feel as though I am reconnecting with the openhearted, child version of myself. This change has come from gentle and loving experiences, as well as distressing challenges that push me to relearn how to trust people. I am observing my behavioral patterns and making an effort to change the ones I developed in response to negative experiences. Also, while approaching people, I am accepting that they may or may not respond positively, and I do not have to take it personally.
So far, I have lived in three different countries: Turkey, the country where I was born and raised, the Netherlands, where I started college, and the United States, where I am currently doing an exchange. Living in these countries and being a part of an international community allowed me to make observations about how people interact under different social environments, influenced by a combination of cultural and personal upbringing.
While pro-social behaviors such as helping, sharing, supporting and cooperating are present in all of these countries, the extent to which individuals are choosing to engage in these behaviors seems to be correlated with how much they socially trust in the reliability and honesty of others. From my perspective, a basic indicator of one’s social trust in people’s integrity, benevolence and sincerity is their confidence to talk to others whether they are strangers or not.
From my perspective, a basic indicator of one’s social trust in people’s integrity, benevolence and sincerity is their confidence to talk to others whether they are strangers or not.
Before arriving in Berkeley, the picture of California I had was slightly different than it is now. As a person who is in the states for the first time, my previous understanding of California was shaped only by the comments of family and friends, movies, books and media representations. Coming to Berkeley allowed me to observe life here as it is — both its beauties and its less pleasant aspects.
One of the surprising things that I’ve seen is the extreme differences in terms of people’s living conditions. I talked to different people and heard various perspectives about homelessness and how people approach each other. During these conversations, I observed that there is a critical relationship between our thinking patterns and whether we see someone as a whole human being or simply dehumanize them.
A kind woman, who I met while waiting at a bus station, told me that our societies became much more Darwinistic. She meant that we mainly focus on protecting ourselves, families and close circle of friends, without attending much to what is happening and how people are living outside of social circles. Thus, only the ones who are able to find a place in wealthy and powerful groups are becoming the fittest who succeed.
Although I do agree with her, I still believe, or at least want to believe, that we are intrinsically an altruistic and cooperative species. It is not always easy to observe this cooperation and social trust, especially in bigger cities. As a result of living with more individuals under unbalanced socioeconomic situations, people are likely to experience situations in which their trust will be taken advantage of.
The question is: How can we keep trusting and approaching people neutrally, if not positively, even after experiencing such incidences? Being aware of our surroundings and knowing how to protect ourselves is one thing; constantly living in distress because of a distrust of what will happen is another. We can enjoy and choose to share time with people we know while still acknowledging and being open to the people we don’t.
After all, who is a stranger? If it’s someone who we have a limited understanding of, then how can someone not be a stranger to us if we never make the effort to even talk to them?
Is it fair to draw conclusions about a person based only on their physical appearance, our experiential knowledge and our predictions about who this person is? Some might say yes because, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to check the individuals we meet and draw predictions according to our previous experiences to protect ourselves as a survival reflex. Although this can be a protective mechanism in the short term, it is important to remember that our predictions are not always right, and as a maladaptive consequence, we can build prejudices against people. Additionally, building a habit of predicting that someone can be a danger to us is stressful and can cause anxiety in the long term.
We can enjoy and choose to share time with people we know while still acknowledging and being open to the people we don’t.
Lately, I saw how maladaptive conditioning was affecting my life. Following an alarming incident, I have been reacting — getting more alert and protective of my belongings — when I see strangers who remind me of the person involved in this incident. I realized recently that this reaction is affecting people because they do not know the reason behind my behavior. When I recognized that a person was aware of and upset because of my reaction to their appearance, I did my best to find the courage to approach them, and we had a meaningful dialogue clearing the misunderstanding. For two people who did not know each other, two strangers, engaging in a conversation allowed us both to appreciate the humanity of one another.
So now I am asking you: Why am I not supposed to approach a stranger to greet, talk or help them? Why wouldn’t I spontaneously share kind gestures, stories or maybe food with them? I think the idea of “stranger danger” is a result of the accumulation of social distress and distrust due to an overestimation of potential dangers. Since humans are the ones who create the current culture and social environment we live in, it is possible to reevaluate how we approach people and reverse some of the isolating effects of dehumanization.
I believe that we can decide for ourselves if we want to be open to meeting with strangers and make the effort to communicate with them. Although talking to people we do not know may feel out of our comfort zones in the beginning, it is valuable to acknowledge that this discomfort does not necessarily occur because the situation is dangerous or uncomfortable but is just unfamiliar. Instead of thinking that it is a naive idea to believe in the good in people, we can slowly start to rebuild a culture of social trust.
We can take small steps by greeting someone with a smile or holding the door when someone is coming from behind us. Rather than feeling obligated to change our behaviors, we can make a decision to live with more compassion and trust in humanity.
Contact Ceren Cingi at [email protected].